Local Current Blog

R.E.M.’s ‘Green’ at 25: Still surprising, still winning

When I started college at Boston University in 1993, my roommate often played a mix tape he’d made for his girlfriend featuring “their” songs. It included the Star Wars theme, the Bodeans’ “Still the Night,” and R.E.M.’s “You Are the Everything.” When my roommate’s girlfriend visited and demonstrated that her front teeth were false implants that could be easily removed, I reflected on the song’s lyric about “drifting off to sleep with your teeth in your mouth” and realized that adult life was going to be just as strange as R.E.M. had promised.

November 7 marks the 25th anniversary of Green, the album on which “You Are the Everything” appeared—along with singles “Orange Crush,” “Pop Song 89,” “Stand,” and “Turn You Inside-Out.” Earlier this year the band released a remastered version of the album, as they’ve done to commemorate the silver anniversaries of their preceding discs. The previous releases in this vein have been welcome, and largely safe, excercises in nostalgia; with the re-release of Green, the retreading of R.E.M.’s catalog enters potentially rocky territory.

Green was R.E.M.’s major label debut; if their I.R.S. releases from 1982’s Chronic Town to 1987’s Dead Letter Office constituted the first segment of the band’s career, Green inaugurated a middle segment that would see the band reach a commercial peak with Out of Time (1991) and would end with drummer Bill Berry’s departure from the band in 1997, after which R.E.M. would continue as a trio until their dissolution in 2011.

R.E.M.’s major-label signing is often seen as the quintessential example of a beloved indie band jumping the shark by going mainstream; in that narrative, regardless of the fact that R.E.M. chose Warner Bros. over labels that offered more money but less artistic freedom, Green was the first product of a Faustian bargain with big business.

From the band’s perspective, Green didn’t just represent the slapping of a new label on the same old thing. They were conscious of their expanding reach, and itchy to expand their sonic palette. They gave interviews explaining that they were tired of making “R.E.M. songs,” and started experimenting with new styles and arrangements.

The band’s desire for a new perspective was, consciously or not, reflected in the packaging of Green: you could only see the eponymous color if you stared at the orange album sleeve for a long time and then suddenly looked away to see the cover’s negative image burned on your retinas. The album’s title most explicitly referred to the environmental themes of the songs’ lyrics, which the formerly enigmatic lyricist Michael Stipe for the first time had printed in the album packaging. The sleeve only featured the lyrics of one song—”World Leader Pretend”—but even that was a significant departure for a singer who admitted he didn’t even remember what words he’d been singing on many of the band’s infamously impenetrable early songs.

Producer Scott Litt gave Green a high-production sheen that positioned R.E.M. for a stadium-rock career phase that made them one of the biggest bands of the 90s: a band that, like U2, expanded their songbook from urgent-sounding cult favorites to mainstream megahits. Heard today, Green sounds like a record released several years later than 1988—testament to R.E.M.’s vast influence in making earnest guitar crunch one of the defining textures of popular music in the 90s. Kurt Cobain and other grunge notables were profoundly influenced by R.E.M.; there probably weren’t many record-store clerks who told Green buyers that they were holding the future of rock and roll, but that would have been an accurate assessment.

Green still sounds fresh today, in part because it hasn’t been overplayed. Everyone’s heard “Losing My Religion” in the grocery store, but you’re unlikely to hear, say, “The Wrong Child” wafting through the produce section. The songs on Green make you want to turn the radio up instead of off. On the other hand, the strutting riffs that power songs like “Get Up” and “Turn You Inside-Out” are clearly ancestors of the overstuffed, underdeveloped rockers that would later crop up with disappointing frequency on albums like New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996) and the band’s middling swan song Collapse Into Now (2011).

I was 13 years old when Green was released, and all the coolest older kids I knew were into R.E.M. Green sounded so big and so confident that it felt like the musical good guys were winning. Though Green isn’t perfect, and though it’s sometimes awkward, it’s smart and forward-thinking, and it should have done better than it did. If one were so inclined, one might draw an analogy with the candidate R.E.M. enthusiastically supported in the 1988 Presidential election.